Dutch parliament supports a proposal to combat caste discrimination which is still rife in South Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal. It has urged Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal to work with South Asian governments to improve the position and life of the 250 million ‘Dalits’.
Dalits are the victims of violations of fundamental human rights, says the Dalits Netherlands Network (DNN), which works closely with Indian Dalit organisations. “The position of Dalits in a country like India is a huge human rights problem,” says Gerard Oonk of the DNN. “It has long been seen as an indigenous phenomenon, but it’s much more than that. It’s about basic human rights which are violated here.”
There is a clear Dutch connection between the position of the Dalits in South Asian society and the Netherlands, says Mr Oonk. “Dalits suffer disproportionally from violations of labour rights in the supply chain of Dutch companies, including garments, seeds and natural stone. There’s a big trade relationship between the Netherlands and the region.”
Pressure on India and other countries should therefore come from the trade field, says Mr Oonk. “We’ve already made a lot of progress when it comes to child labour. Many Dutch companies are aware that they can’t buy goods in India from suppliers who employ young children. Now they should also be aware that caste discrimination on the work floor is also unacceptable.”
“Dutch companies are relatively active with regard to corporate social responsibility in their international operations,” Mr Oonk says. “I am working to make them realise that this issue also falls under that responsibility."
Mr Oonk says that The International Dalit Solidarity Network, of which the DNN is a member, has developed concrete guidelines to work on the issue. These are known as the Ambedkar Principles, named after a famous Dalit leader.
As a result of caste discrimination, many Dalits are simply unable to find good employment and are therefore relegated to poorly-paid jobs, or to no jobs at all. “We see subhuman wages and working conditions, forms of slavery; everything you can imagine,” according to Mr Oonk.
The DNN admits that pressure from the Netherlands only is not enough to change a system that is so ingrained in South Asian societies. “We can’t do it on our own, of course, so the Dutch government should seek cooperation with other EU member states,” says Mr Oonk. “The UN Human Rights Council also has a pivotal role to play here.”
But while the international community may do its utmost to implement some changes, it’s ultimately the mindset of the people that needs to be changed – not an easy task, says Mr Oonk. “This can only be done by local organisations in caste-affected countries. They are however seeking our moral and political support to achieve that. Together it will lead to changes.”
“Also, in many cases it’s simply a matter of implementing laws and regulations that already exist. It’s up to the international community or organisations like ours to raise that awareness,” Mr Oonk adds. “Indian NGOs are also beginning to realise that they have to work with the governments to achieve things. That will ultimately lead to better results than not working together at all.”
During a recent visit to India, Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal raised the issue of children’s and women’s rights, but not the fate of Dalits. “We regret that, but we’re confident that the Dutch government will highlight the issue in the future, together with the EU and UNHCR,” says Mr Oonk.
The Dalit Netherlands Network is not the only organisation that works against caste discrimination in South Asia. Last month, a group of international organisations staged the Conference on a Decade of Dalit Rights. In its final declaration, the conference said that “those affected by caste-based discrimination will keep knocking at the door of the UN to be able to enjoy their inalienable, universal human rights”, adding that this requires the commitment of the global community.